Friday, October 2, 2015

The Romance Formula

There's a reason I've been struggling to write blog posts lately. Some of it is time and some of it is because I'm having trouble articulating what's on my mind.

I don't want to offend anybody and it's hard to say what I want to say without possibly upsetting certain people, especially romance authors. They are my peers and I do not want to upset them. I admire a lot of them.

I am frustrated though.

I'm getting really close to finishing two of my novels. It's taken me forever because I wanted to work on my writing techniques.

I read my bad reviews. I've thought about some things I've heard people say. I've been working on improving things.

I want to sell well someday. I want to make people happy.

Maybe part of my problem is that I've always struggled with being a people pleaser. I shouldn't care what people think or say, I should just do.

But that's not really me. I'm always trying to improve myself. I'm also sensitive, so when people speak, I tend to listen. This doesn't mean I cry when they say something negative, it just means that I'm not so good at ignoring people.

Anyway, what I really wanted to work on this time around was writing actual romance novels. I learned after I self-published that even if you write a novel and the entire thing is about a relationship, it's not a romance novel unless it has a happily ever after. Sorry, Nicholas Spark fans, but The Notebook isn't a real romance novel according to most romance novelists.

Because Romance novels need to follow a very specific formula or people aren't happy.

The biggest thing is the happily ever after, but there's also subtler things that you don't realize are there until you try to write something different.

You must write a main female lead who is either "average" looking or attractive. She must have a great personality or she isn't deserving of the male lead. The man must be very attractive. This is a fantasy after all and we can't have any "ugly" people. So while I think it would be interesting to write a romance novel about a character with dwarfism (I'm always coming up with random things like that), in reality, it's not okay according to romance writers.

I am ruining the fantasy. The best I could get writing about a person like that would be writing some kind of fetish erotica novel.

I'm not allowed to write about people that are "different", that I find interesting.

The men must be rich. They must be alpha. They must be handsome.

But in real life, I married a poor, nice guy. He is indeed very handsome, but I love him the way he is. What if I don't want to write about rich people? What if I don't want to write about men who are borderline aggressive assholes?

I'm destroying the fantasy! What kind of romance writer am I if I destroy the fantasy?!

It doesn't matter that it's not my fantasy. I must not destroy the fantasy.

The characters must both have strong personalities. They must fight with each other through the entire novel. This can be fun at times, but I also romanticize the idea of people falling in love who have outside circumstances keeping them apart, rather than internal ones.

There is some leeway in this area, but it seems like there's a strong preference. People prefer two characters who are fighting with each other, not two characters who are fighting for their love against the world.

And if I need to spend some time developing characters and personalities in the beginning? You can't do that. The two main love interests must meet in the very beginning, preferably the first chapter. Definitely within the first five though. If they meet in Chapter five, then I'm pushing it.

In my most recent novels, I did this with the first book. I forced it because I wanted to fit in to the romance genre. And all my critique partners agreed in unison that I started too late in the story and I needed to actually develop the characters first because they were all one dimensional.

And once I did that, the romance started halfway through my book now.

Guess what? It's not a romance novel anymore.

In no other genre can character development possibly kick you out of the genre. My book still fits into fantasy now that I developed my characters. It did before I developed them and it does now afterwards.

But romance...romance...romance...

You must write for the formula or it's not a romance novel anymore.

Also, the characters can't fall in love too fast or have sex too quickly. Forget that relationships in real life progress in all kinds of different ways. It must go like this...

First they see each other and hate each other. Then they are fighting and there's sexual tension. Then they are fighting and they shockingly kiss in the middle of fighting. Then this leads to fighting and them fooling around. Then this leads to fighting and having sex. THEN, they resolve everything and live happily ever after. They're in love now!

My husband and I in real life, we moved in together after a week of knowing each other and had already said we loved each other. Some people might think that's crazy, but here we are five years later happier than we could otherwise be. It allowed me to get close to his mother for the little time she had left of her life and it allowed me to be there for him when he lost her.

But romance novels aren't about real life. They are about the fantasy. 

If two people meet in a book and have sex right away, then it's not a romance novel anymore. Maybe an erotica, but in romance, people aren't allowed to do that stuff until they are in love, late in the book. Some of my reviews for Medusa's Desire complained about this. Even though they don't say they love each other until later, because they had sex write away, I was accused of making it an "insta-love" book. Because in romance novels, sex equals love.

I've been trying not to do things like these.

And it has made me stop enjoying reading romance novels because I learned the formula too well and now they all seem like this:

"Brock is a Dragon King. He kidnaps Stacey. They fight because they both have strong personalities, but they slowly fall in love and have sex. Then they live happily ever after."

"Damien is a billionaire bachelor. He's content being a playboy, but then he meets Susie. They fight because they both have strong personalities, but they slowly fall in love and have sex. They live happily ever after."

"Big Feather is a Native American Chief. He kidnaps Stephanie. They fight because they both have strong personalities, but they slowly fall in love and have sex. They live happily ever after."

"Josh is a cowboy. He's teaching model Tiffany how to work on a ranch. They fight because they both have strong personalities, but they slowly fall in love and have sex. They live happily ever after."

And then there's one of my books...

"Medusa is a monster reviled by humans. Perseus is a hero sent to kill her. Instead, he sleeps with her and she travels with him. They fall in love, but he's sleeping with another woman to cover up their relationship. She realizes he'll be happier without her, even though he loves her. She makes the ultimate sacrifice by ripping out her eyes and erasing his memory."

It's all out of order and the ending is wrong. The whole novel is still about Medusa and Perseus' relationship, but they sleep together when they first meet and their ending isn't happy.

If you want to write a novel that hits all these areas that I labeled as formulaic, that's fine. There's a place for EVERY type of novel out there.

That's not what's bothering me. I'm not trying to get rid of anything.

I'm just asking that you please stop trying to get rid of me. Stop telling me over and over again that it doesn't matter how much of my books has a couple falling in love, it just matters whether I meet the formula or not.

If there is room for your books, why isn't there room for other books?

If fantasy worked like this, if it was this strict and this specific, then everyone would have to write about dragon novels. Somewhere in the novel, one of the dragons would have to lay an egg. In the end, the baby and the dragon mother have to live happily ever after and you must introduce a dragon within the first 20 pages.

There would be this author who liked to write about elves. She'd try to make it about dragons, but as she is writing, the dragons would start growing pointy ears and walking on two legs. So she'd change it and make it about elves, trying to add a dragon somewhere in there to make up for what she had done. But people would go,"What is a dragon doing in a book about elves?" So she'd cut out some of the scenes with the dragon in it, start swearing because she forgot to put a scene where the dragon laid an egg, and worry that it's no longer a fantasy novel because the dragon didn't appear until the tenth chapter.

Then she'd throw her manuscript out the window and scream and cry and wonder...



I read romance novels all my life. I only started reading fantasy as an adult. It wasn't really allowed in my house when I was younger. I love it now.

But even though I'm less familiar with it, even though I didn't grow-up with it like I grew-up with romance, I've been welcomed with open arms. I can write about orcs. I can write about mermaids. I can write about magic. I can write about no magic. There's barely any rules.

So I don't get this romance thing, where we throw out stories like Romeo and Juliet and The Notebook because they don't fit the formula well enough.

Is it because of Jane Austen? Is it because all romance novels need to be related to Pride and Prejudice in some way? Rich man falls in love with feminist. They fight a lot because they have such strong personalities, but slowly they fall in love anyway and live happily ever after.

But I am a Bronte girl. A Jane Eyre lover. I want a story about a girl who was abused growing up. We don't meet her true love in the first chapter, we meet HER instead-strong, interesting Jane Eyre. I want a stocky, ugly man to fall in love with the pale looking Jane. She's too skinny. I want a deranged wife to come in on their wedding day and ruin their chance at happiness. I want her to be homeless and hang out with church people for awhile even though it has nothing to do with the romance. And then when she finally does get her happily ever after, it's only after the main male character is disfigured and hideous and blind because his ex-wife tried to kill him. It's PERFECT!

That's my kind of romance story. That's what I want to write and what I want to read. And there has to be a place for me, too, somewhere in there.

It's not that I hate the formula. I just don't want to have to meet every point, every single time.

I don't want people to stop writing what they are writing. I don't want to get rid of alpha males, billionaires, and firemen.

I just want there to be some variety. Is variety really so horrible?


Yelle Hughes said...

No, variety is not horrible. As one of your beta readers and an avid reader of romance myself...I don't want to read the same formula over and over again.
You as an author has a voice and YOUR voice should be heard. It would be YOUR voice if a book is written like someone else. As you see in Hollywood...the retelling of the same stories over and over again. People will get tired of it, just like they will with books. So, keep your head up, keep doing what you are doing and those that are ready for something different will appreciate you standing up for you.

Anonymous said...

There is a lot of variety in romance. Yes, there is a "formula" to follow, but there is a LOT of flexibility in that formula. What you have described is just one way of how a romance can go. The "formula" is as broad as "the hero's journey" for a fantasy romance.

I would suggest reading a broader selection of romance novels to observe that. Also, it IS possible to have the main characters MEET in chapter one and still develop their personalities. It is not a matter of one OR the other. Again, I advise reading more in this genre to see how it can be done with skill :)

Anonymous said...

One piece of advice: if you want to make a living as an author, start by following the formulas in the genre of your choice. Then, after you've build a readership, you can write "different" books, and see how they perform. But writing things that break genre rules too much right out of the gate means it'll take you much longer to sell enough to make a living (frankly, there's a good chance you'll never reach that status).

Being a writer isn't writing what you want-that's easy. It's about writing what people want to read - it takes a lot of skill to write something a lot of people will enjoy. After all, you're not writing for yourself. Or if you do write for yourself, you should lower the expectations of making a living out of it.

E.B. Black said...

Anonymous - I've read romance novels since I was twelve, so I am very familiar with the genre. Being familiar with how other people write doesn't make it so you can write the same way. Sometimes it just makes you more frustrated because you aren't other people and therefore can't write identical to them.

I agree that it is very difficult to write for the formula and people who don't write for the formula don't sell. Otherwise, I wouldn't care about the formula at all. So I agree with your point there.

But I don't agree that there is variety. I write in more than one genre. Other genres let me write freely. In romance, you can't. You have a tiny box that your book is allowed to fit into and nothing else.

Yelle Hughes - Thanks. :)

E.B. Black said...

Anonymous - Also, you are missing my point. I never said you *can't* develop characters and have them meet within the first chapter. That was never my point. In fact, I painstakingly made it clear over and over again that I am fine with people who write for the formula. Good for them. I've read their books and enjoyed them before.

But you are illustrating my point. I am fine with people who write for the formula, but you and others are not fine with people who don't.

If a story demands that two characters not meet in the first chapter, then why doesn't romance allow for that? Why does it fight you? Why doesn't it allow for that variety? Why do all books have to be the same?

Variety means both books where the characters meet in the first chapter and books where they don't. You are only thinking in either/or. I want both.

Anonymous said...

"If a story demands that two characters not meet in the first chapter, then why doesn't romance allow for that? Why does it fight you? Why doesn't it allow for that variety? Why do all books have to be the same?"

- in principle, you can of course do whatever you choose to. But every genre has "rules", some are just more apparent than others. Just like romance demands MCs to meet in the first chapter (by the way, I have read romances where they don't meet in the first one, my Kindle's full of them - Look for: Tears of Tess - dark romance, Easy Love - fluffy, feel-good romance; The Tycoon's Kiss - Jane Porter, At Any Price - Brenna Aubrey), fantasy has specific parameters too, but the genre *seems* too give more leeway because of the myriad of fantastic elements one has to choose from. But if you take a number of very successful fantasies and analyze them using the Blake Snyder technique for example, you'll see that the character journey and plot points are basically the same too.

I really have your best at heart, and I want you to succeed. I've been reading your books since the beginning and I know how much you want to make a living out of this. I'm just trying to point out that you can use these formulas to your benefit instead of getting frustrated by them. Also, and I know this will sound insane, but writing by following a "formula" actually can help you tremendously as a writer because you get to work on various aspects of your writing while not worrying about aspects already "given" by the formula).

Just try it as an exercise if you will :) Write a contemporary romance by following the "formula" to the letter. You'll be surprised how free you'll feel :)

E.B. Black said...

I think you're right in the sense that it could help to write a contemporary romance for once. I always have fantasy in there and it complicates things. There's all the world building and stuff that I need to do, in addition to trying to follow romance rules.

I've been practicing writing horror short stories on the side and getting better at writing horror because of it.

I could do something similar with romance, just practice it directly and see what happens, see what I learn.

Rosalind James said...

I sell very well. My guys are nice. (Except in one book where he doesn't start out as nice.) The other 15 are all great guys. Nobody's a borderline aggressive asshole.

My guys also aren't all very good-looking. They all have good bodies, because I personally am not interested in reading about or having sex with somebody who doesn't have a really good body (been married 35 years and my husband has a great body), but they're not necessarily good-looking in the face. When they are, there are issues because of that.

In most of my books, they do NOT fight each other. I only have one where they strike major bad sparks. Mostly, they work things out together. Yes, there can be something keeping them apart, but they're kind to each other. People who are really in love, to me, don't call each other names or say cruel things.

My people don't always meet in the first chapter. Often it's chapter 3 or 4.

I've been writing romance for almost 4 years, and publishing for 3. I've made almost exactly a milion dollars in those 3 years doing it this way. I'm bought more by women 35 & up, not so much by very young women. There are plenty of women out there who don't want to read about jerks and want a more realistic story. And yes, I'm a hybrid--I tradpub (Montlake) as well as indie pub. There are tradpubs (at least one) who want this kind of story. Almost all my books have reached the top 100 on Amazon.

I am not unusual. Maybe you've been reading the wrong books for your taste?

Rosalind James said...

But, yeah, the people have to fall in love and end up happily together, and the point of the book has to be them getting together (although it can be about other things too--their individual journeys, their relationships with others, an outside suspense plot--whatever. In fact, romantic suspense does exactly what you're talking about--it allows an author to have the conflict be primarily external. The couple can be pretty much united through the whole thing.)

BUT--a book about two people getting together, ending up happily together, is the DEFINITION of romance. Also not going to sell: mysteries where the crime isn't solved. Thrillers where the bad guys win. Etc.

Within that constraint, you can do almost anything. In fact, most romance I see nowadays has the opposite of what you describe: generally, the people sleep together right away. Sometimes in Paragraph Three. I write it where they don't sleep together for half the book, and that's considered unusual.

Are you sure you are reading CURRENT romance?

E.B. Black said...

I read a lot of self-published romance stuff and some of it is memory from growing up reading romance novels, but I am glad you said all these things. Most of what I was basing this off of was people's advice. And I just keep hearing the mantra that if I don't do things this certain way that I can't make a living as an author over and over again.

I am okay with the happily ever after, although the first book in the books I am writing right now has an ending of happily ever after eventually, which isn't great, but I can't change it or I have to delete the whole second book. But I want to make most of my books have happily ever afters from now on. I just got overwhelmed when it felt like a million other rules were falling into my lap as well.

The sex thing I got from people reviewing my book and saying it had "insta-love" when all that happened instantly was them having sex.